How history will treat PW Botha

PW Botha will probably always be remembered as a “black hat” man. He and Magnus Malan loved wearing those ridiculous homburgs when they inspected their beloved troepies—whether in the “operational area” or south of the border, down Voortrekkerhoogte way.

In South African politics he also wore the symbolic black hat—as the bully-boy face of apartheid and the enforcer behind successive states of emergency aimed at keeping the lid on the boiling pot of black resistance.

I believe the hindsight of history will treat Botha much kinder than the quick appraisals following his death this week at his home in the Wilderness. For the image of a finger-wagging, self-righteous, smirking Groot Krokodil who defiantly refused to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to account for the excesses of his administration is still too vivid in our collective memory.

However, Botha also deserves credit for the process of change he initiated in a period of history when white society was at its paranoiac and intransigent worst.
During his reign the dismantling of the apartheid edifice gathered speed—first with the abolition of the largely inconsequential mixed-marriages and immorality acts, and later with the scrapping of the Group Areas Act and the noxious influx-control measures.

It can be argued that these changes came about not through the design of Botha but as a result of an inevitable chain of small events. At least it happened during Botha’s watch, and he had to suffer a right-wing revolt in his own ranks and the break-up of his beloved National Party as a result of this.

With the right-wing breakaway of Andries Treurnicht and his conservative cohorts in 1982, Botha effectively split the entire Afrikaner edifice from the Broederbond through the Afrikaans churches into cultural organisations, sporting bodies and school committees.

He broke the mould of whites-only politics with his limited reforms around the three-chamber Parliament, and towards the end of his career he strongly hinted at the scrapping of the “independent” homeland concept.

And although he only scratched the surface of political reform, he did prepare the ground within broader white society that enabled FW de Klerk to plunge into the February 1991 initiative, the eventual unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the release of Nelson Mandela and other leaders.

For more than half a century Botha had a Siamese-twin relationship with the National Party. He dropped out of Free State University to join the Cape party machinery as an organiser, quickly earning a reputation as a rabble-rousing orator and an enforcing thug who broke up the meetings of their United Party opponents.

He was rewarded with a parliamentary seat for the George constituency at the young age of 32 and a deputy ministership (coloured affairs) a decade later, and in the early Sixties his long relationship with the military started when he was appointed minister of defence.

The National Party had a habit of picking its leadership from the right wing of the party, but it still came as a surprise when, in 1978, the Cape hard-liner easily disposed of the softer options of Pik Botha and Connie Mulder when John Vorster fell on hard times because of the information scandal.

PW Botha’s world view was strongly influenced by his relationship with men in uniforms. Via Magnus Malan and other top defence brass who were trained by the French forces in Algeria he became convinced that there was a “total onslaught” waged against South Africa, which could only be countered by a “total strategy”. His obsession with military solutions for diplomatic problems affected an entire generation of South Africans—both the whites who were conscripted into a meaningless border war and blacks who were on the sharp end of uniformed actions in townships and in the front-line countries.

He surrounded himself with “securocrats” who wore similar blinkers and introduced the national security-management system to the country at a time when the majority of the population had started to run out of patience with the process of cosmetic reforms. The irresistible forces of revolution were met with the immovable objects of Botha’s state of emergency.

Botha and the “Rubicon speech” will always be mentioned in the same sentence. The real story of what happened on the night of August 15 1985 when Botha addressed the Natal congress of the Nats will still be told. What is known is that Botha originally intended to deliver a major reformist speech, carefully crafted by a group of policy wonks in the office of constitutional affairs minister Chris Heunis.

Pik Botha was dispatched to inform foreign governments and embassies to prepare themselves for big announcements, and the local media received carefully leaked previews of the speech. For PW Botha, with his notorious disdain for the media (except Die Burger), the weight of expectations became too much and he baulked at the last moment. In the end Botha launched into a tirade against his favourite enemies—foreign interference in local affairs, the communist conspiracy and the media. All that remained of the original speech was a pathetic one-liner that South Africa had crossed the Rubicon of political reform.

The speech and the global reaction marked the effective end of his political career. International reaction was devastating, the rand plummeted to unprecedented lows and the ANC’s campaign to isolate the Botha regime and introduce global sanctions received an unexpected shot in the arm.

His hold on to the levers of power became increasingly tenuous, but it was not until he suffered a minor stroke four years later that the feeble-hearted reformers in his party could summon the courage to plunge the knives in. With a trembling hand and a quivering lower lip Botha cut a sad and forlorn figure as he tried to fight the internal coup orchestrated by FW de Klerk and Pik Botha.

His final years were spent in both the physical and symbolic Wilderness, trying to stay out of politics but often unable to resist the temptation to snipe at his old foes—most notably De Klerk and the TRC’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

PW Botha can hardly be described as a reformer. But he did start a process—the end of which he could hardly foresee when he started scratching the ugly warts of petty apartheid.

Dries van Heerden is a former political reporter

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